Wagner, Jeff – Mean Deviation: Four Decades Of Progressive Metal (Book Review)

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Reviewed: December 2010
Released: 2010, Bazillion Points
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: JP


The definitive guide to Progressive Heavy Metal. Elite.

Well, I gotta admit it. Jeff Wagner nailed it. The former editor-in-chief of Metal Maniacs and all-round Lord of metal trivia has written the definitive history of Progressive Metal. Not that I ever doubted that he would nail it, actually. I’ve been looking forward to this book since it was announced back in October of 2009. MEAN DEVIATION has been published by Ian Christe’s Bazillion Points, the world’s leading Metal related publisher. In fact I’m not surprised this is the definitive history of Progressive Metal given the Bazillion’s track record of quality books.

Again the presentation is top quality, 364 pages, tons of pictures, both colour and black and white and it has one of those neat-o plasticized covers which came in really handy when I spilled my Coke slurpee on the cover. Man, was I pissed off about that! I’d just got the damn thing and then I spilled on it. It wiped clean way. It’s amazing what science can do these days. Plastic covers! What will they think of next?

The book has a number of good features, a forward by Steve Wilson, a prologue by Jeff himself explaining his love for the genre, some useful appendices, and many interesting sidebars. Appendix Three is a list of 40 or so prog bands that have covered other prog bands songs, which I thought was really cool. Someone needs to license all that great music and make it a Triple CD, a companion to the next edition of the book and get Martin Popoff to do the liner notes.

The meat of the book itself is divided into 17 chapters spread across five parts. Wagner covers in ample detail with a fun, easy style, the early history of the genre, the Norwegian scene, the Swedish scene, the Japanese scene various genres and how they have progressive bands within those sub-genres.

I really enjoyed reading Wagner giving many bands a quick honourable mention, such as Secrecy, Toxik, Pyogenesis and many others. The author states that this is not to be considered the definitive encyclopedia, listing everyone’s favorite obscure band, but rather a history and a launching pad to discover the many bands out there. He also states upfront that this is also a personal history and his enthusiasm for bands like Mekong Delta, Mayhem and Voi-Vod shine through.

I would have liked Wagner to spend some time on the utterly massive Italian Progressive Metal scene. There are a couple hundred Italian Prog/Power bands, the scene goes well beyond Rhapsody! He could have dedicated an entire chapter to that nation. However, I understand why it was skipped over. Some critics have suggested that the Italian scene isn’t really all that innovative but rather a technically flawless (if uninspired) melding of the neo-classical stylings of Yngwie Malmsteen and Dream Theater. I personally love that style and have dozens of Italian Prog/Power bands in my collection. Still, it would have been nice for the author discuss the labels Underground Symphony and Lucretia, as well as give more than a tip of the hat to Skylark, Time Machine, Labyrinth and Black Jester.

I really enjoyed Wagners enthusiasm for the whole genre. He writes at length about the on-going debate about the nature of progressive music, the evolution of music vs. the archetypes of Progressive metal with it’s standards and conventions. Thankfully, he does not really ‘take sides’ but acknowledges that the many bands who adhere to the norm of capital ‘P’ Prog, are still valuable and enjoyable. If I had to guess he likely favours bands who evolve and are musically adventurous as compared to being a Dream Theater clone for example. I’ve also personally felt that originality and progression and enjoyment are not inextricably linked; something doesn’t have to be original for me to enjoy it, hence the roughly 17 AC/DC albums sitting in my collection. However, the whole controversial subject was handled deftly by Wagner’s prose, without seeming judgemental.

This book will have a wide range of appeal for not only fans of progressive metal but also fans of Black, Death and Thrash will find interesting connections, quotes, stories and anecdotes from many of their favorite artists. Another triumph for Bazillion Points.

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Technical Details:
Format Reviewed:
Publisher: Bazillion Points
Pages: 364